Must Reads from Around the World: Feb. 2, 2012

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Aref Karimi / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos present blindfolded Taliban fighters to the media in Herat on Jan. 29, 2012. ANA commandos captured six Taliban fighters after an operation in the outskirts of Herat on Jan. 29.

Taliban Update – The New York Times follows up on findings in a NATO report, “State of the Taliban 2012” – based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 insurgents in Afghanistan – showing resilient fighters “convinced that they are winning the war.” The document’s leaking coincides with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement Wednesday that U.S. forces would step back from combat roles as early as mid-2013. Read TIME’s analysis of the report here.

China in the Euro Zone – As Chancellor Angela Merkel arrrived in Beijing Wednesday for her fifth visit as Germany’s leader, Der Spiegel assesses whether she will succeed in plans to persuade China to invest in debt ridden euro zone countries. Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times‘ op-ed takes a pragmatically balanced view: “China should help maintain the stability of the European economy,” writes Chen Zhimin.

Syria Issues – As Russia pledged Wednesday to veto the planned U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his Vice President, Reuters reports Western and Arab allies are discussing the possibility of offering him exile. Meanwhile the Associated Press writes that regime troops have opened a new front against the rebels in a mountain valley outside Damascus.

Two Koreas – The BBC examines South Korea’s image problem. Finding a “unique brand” for the one of the world’s largest economies is proving difficult. South Korea’s economy is also facing growing pains as figures released Wednesday show exports fell nearly 7%, producing the first trade deficit since October 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal. A constant focus on the  economy has turned the county into “a realm of beasts,” says Park Seok-hong, curator of a Confucian academy aiming to bring back traditional teachings. The New York Times visited Park’s academy as South Korea looks to the past for a better future.

Safe Investing – German bank WestLB has introduced an investment portfolio made especially for Muslim investors. The Islamic-Strategy Index certificate removes any risk of violating Sharia law by investing in immoral or forbidden industries, German newspaper Die Welt reports.